The Legend of Wooley Swamp

What ever happened to nuance? Jabberwocky is being spewed up by the left and right as they try to drag us into their Wonderlands. This blog charts a path out of this swamp of simple truths and false certainties. And from time to time, it'll be a place for more light-hearted musings.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Like I Said: White Phosphorus Was Used in Fallujah

11/17/2005
The post has been updated re: the soldier in the RAI 'documentary,' international law and
last takes on the subject

Right off the bat: I was wrong about this story, but not in the way you might think.

Today, the ol' BBC (thanks to the Wizard of Id for the tip) had a story that warrants revisiting my choking-on-muesli experience last week. Yes, white phosphorus is back in the news. It turns out that the mainly fallacious, and never retracted, RAI report - passed on a little too eagerly by the BBC and the blogosphere, see e.g. Daily KoS - incidentally managed to touch on a rather thorny aspect of the reality of war.

The news: The Pentagon has confirmed that WP was used as an 'offensive incendiary weapon,' the intention of which was to flush out insurgents in Fallujah. BTW, the UK has also confirmed its usage, but (so far) only as an illuminating agent. In terms that offer uncomfortable, candid insight into the brutality of war, Pentagon Spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Barry Venable described its usage:

"The combined effects of the fire and smoke - and in some case the terror brought about by the explosion on the ground - will drive them out of the holes so that you can kill them with high explosives." (added emphasis)

Contrary to some readings of my posts I did not engage in obsfuscation, spinning or my own version of wishful thinking. Nor did I deny that WP was employed (remember this picture?) I believe I referred to there being no chemical weapons, no conspiracy and no attacks on civilians. In my update post, I stated how the BBC had changed its tune and now talked about 'incendiary arms.' That sentence was conspicuously NOT followed by yours truly writing that this new take was some kind of outrageous lie.

This IS still all true, even without resorting to contrived definitions of the word 'is.' So while I continue my merry ways along these lines and admit where I 'erred,' the latest revelation is proving too scrumptious for the conspiricists and war opponents to resist deploying. I will not preach as to the ethics of using WP - I am sure you can make up your own mind there - but instead quickly note how those eager to push their opinion on others seem prone to go loosey goosey with the facts.

In the RAI report - reminder: which the Berlusconi controlled network released as a figurative smokescreen - the soldier Jeff Englehart (who acknowledges that he was 'misquoted.' See here.) said that there was no doubt that WP was a 'chemical weapon.' Yes, said RAI and the choir. Civilians were targeted. CHOIR: Yes. Can nuance, reading treaties, new revelations change your minds? CHOIR: No.

Fortunately, my own standards are of a somewhat higher caliber, so here's how and why I was wrong. First, I implied that WP was not used as a weapon at all, and that was clearly wrong. Secondly, I was wrong since the Pentagon statement was issued today, i.e. not before I wrote the piece. Still, I wrote that the Fallujah was likely "a savage, bloody battle in a controversial war. No more but certainly no less." I was also sadly mistaken in my assumption that the German media would refrain from slobbering all over this sorry mess. I just had the misfortune of watching the evening news (in German,) which tonight was steeped in more biased editorializing than usual. This blog usually does a good job of clearing this kind of fog. More on this from me some other time.

But, the Others were wrong last week on several more, serious points - even though they could and should have known better - and continue to be so. But because the Pentagon acknowledged something it never denied (the State Department did that ham-fisted job and humiliated the U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James in the process,) they somehow feel vindicated in what bear the hallmarks of long-running and somewhat irrational grievances.

Instead of accepting the Pentagon explanation - that the State Department got it wrong when they issued a denial - they believe in the LIE. To me that is hindsight and distortion, and wholly unnecessary even if you think that WP should never be used.

Try looking at it this way:

  • WP is not a chemical weapon. Instead,
  • it is primarily an illuminating agent, which
  • can be used as a conventional incendiary weapon and/or 'flushing-out' device that
  • is only illegal when used indiscriminately on civilian areas, something
  • in all likelihood the US did NOT do. Also,
  • the relevant protocol of the Conventional Warfare Treaty has not been signed by the US.
  • Moreover, regular soldiers fired the rounds and
  • embedded journalists were there to see it.

Taking the last two points first, the notion that the Pentagon had planned to engage in a 'cover-up' seems a little ridiculous. The soldiers were bound to talk about it - there are even stories about its use in official U.S. military magazines - as were the journalists. And so they did. Folks who believe they've uncovered a conspiracy as big as the moon landing make me shed a tear.
And considering the first six points, it is blindingly obvious that the US believes it is on FIRM legal ground - both domestically and internationally - here. Even if the relevant protocol had been signed, it is FAR from clear that the U.S. in breach of it. So again, why would they cover it up? Because they care that Kos and co might misconstrue their battlefield methods? Opting out of treaties and protocols is the sovereign right of any (potential) signatory and it happens ALL the time. And no, not only when John Bolton has his way.

You know, the decisions to use weapons, including WP, are made by people on the ground in the heat of combat, not by Rummy in a smoke-filled room. The opting out in this case was a President Carter decision, which was tacitly approved by the U.S. Senate that ratified the rest of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. This can be explained in any number of ways (save for the desire to melt skin on insurgents several years down the road.) Point is, it happened long ago and if you had really been following these kinds of things, you could have predicted that WP would be used in this way. Now that's an interpretation a million miles away from the one that files this under a cover-up and proof of American baying for blood.

By all means, disagree with the tactics - vehemently even - but there's no need to wind up in a web of jabberwocky. Again, ask yourself why you are so willing to tow that line.

The reason people were initially (justifiably) upset was because the word 'chemical' was used and emotional connections to Saddam, the Hallabjah massacre and WMD were made. How do you think President Talabani felt when he heard this? Aside from the fact the Sarin nerve gas and WP are as different as a chemical weapon and....a non-chemical weapon, there are the issues of targets and intentions. More precisely: Civilians and murder as opposed to insurgents/terrorists/the enemy and waging war while trying to minimize civilian casualtiss.

An aside: The piece following the WP piece on the flagship BBC program 'Newshour' was actually on Berlusconi, but unfortunately on how he's the subject of a 'novel' in which he gets assassinated. I mean really... And so his connection - from the forged Yellowcake documents, legal troubles to the convenient timing of the RAI piece just when the Iraqi President was visiting - to this story remains unraveled. Will somebody please pull the thread?

My beef with this - from the first moment I heard it - remains how this kind of story continues to be reported, especially by the likes of RAI and Kos. It is clearly intended to cast the U.S., the Pentagon and/or President Bush in the worst possible light. Their aim? To assist their claim that it's really the U.S. government that is ruining the image of the country. And if this game requires ignoring facts, using inflammatory language and assuming the worst, SFW? Thus, the purveyors of this fiction become useful idiots, or willing lackeys, to folks with whom they really have nothing in common. Funny, it sounds like they're the ones ruining images by telling a fib or two.

The original RAI story is still lying flat on its face while the conspiratorial bottom-feeders work themselves into a frenzy, holding up its hollow shell as inadvertent proof of their own tunnel vision. Echochamber...Meanwhile, on the other side of the Looking Glass, the rest of us are grappling with reality. Whether or not the deployment of WP was acceptable. Just who lied about what during therun-upp to the war. The nature of preemption. The price we are willing to pay for liberty. These issues will be addressed in due course. For some last takes (?) on WP: visit Stockholm, opt for an ablution and then have some balloon juice. They all debunk the most spurious claims, while leaving it up to the reader to decide what to think about WP. You know, the real issue.

---

At the risk of sullying precious, and currently vulnerable, souls by mentioning them in the same breath as this toxic brouhaha: the people of Northwest Pakistan and Kashmir are beginning to feel the onset of winter in their ruined homeland. And there is a still a lot more the world can and should do to help them. There can be no greater priority right now.


Subjects: ; ; ; ; ; ;

2 Comments:

Anonymous da wizard of id said...

Dude, the wizard is move to reply. Got no time to write an essay here, but-
(i) you should have just admitted you were wrong about WP and left it at that - it doesn't mean you are always wrong, just this time. The story is not about any cover up or conspiracy, its about the use of WP to kill humans in the first place. You implied it didn't happen, but it did;
(ii)you would have to be incredibly credulous to believe Venable's quote, with its saintly emphasis ("oh no, we didn't want to kill anyone with this stuff"). Look at today's BBC report - clearly they did;
(iii) you'd do a lawyer proud with your analysis of why there was no illegality in using WP (because the US didn't agree that it should be!!! - please!) but methinks thats not really the issue either. Its barbaric to try to kill people in that way - thats the issue;
(iv) I can't find the original BBC report on RAI's claims that you originally used to attack the beeb's credibility, but why is it ok for Bush to knowingly mislead a nation about why he is dragging them into war so long as he's (apparently) relying on other sources - "British intelligence", that famous oxymoron - but not for the BBC to spend a few seconds on its breakfast show reporting what another media source has said (which, contary to your fairly truculent revisiting of the story, seems to have been in substance correct);
(v)I can't believe you've fallen for the Howardesque line of calling the Iraqis fighting the illegal US invasion "terrorists". No they're not, they're insurgents. If the Russians invaded Kreuzberg (again) tomorrow, you wouldn't be a terrorist for resisting either;
(vi) And more sneaky wordplay - lumping "conspiricists" and "war opponents" together - the former is a fairly derogatory term (particularly in the hands of people with something to hide, or those who'd rather not know), to be a "war opponent" is to be intelligent, humane, civilized, decent and usually right. How many wars can you remember that were a good idea?
(vii) I was checking out my Grandad's stamp collection the other day - he had a few from "Iraq - Under British Occupation" from early in the C20. It really drove home to me how constantly we've messed with those poor people for reasons which have nothing to do with their welfare and everything to do with ours. It was a mistake, based on a lie. And its getting worse. What was that about Talabani and "relativism" - looks like the torture centres in Baghdad are in operation again - lucky the right guys are running them now - till they tell Halliburton to piss off and they'll be the wrong guys. Oh dear, could I be becoming a conspiricist? Or just a realist? History can be so inconvenient.
(viii) We agree on one thing - Berlusconi is a piece of shit - but Aznar "infinitely more principled" - give me a break. He lied about ETA being responsible for the Madrid bombings, and was booted out of office in disgrace as a result.

11:08 AM  
Blogger Johnnie Oz said...

The Wizard of Id is a great man, but he is a tad off base in this case. I also have to wonder if he read up on the issue, i.e. all the links I included (be sure to check out the two or three i include in this comment.) But I concede that not everyone has the time I find, and that his main point - based on his understanding of WP - needs no research. I write this assuming that the argument is not that NO weapon can be used b/c the invasion should never have happened. Now that would not be worthy of the time spent here.

I'll try to keep this short, and in doing so I'll stay on message. Thus I won't get into the debate about intelligence, the legality of the war or the semantics surrounding insurgents vs terrorists. Though on the latter I will point out that I referred to BOTH as well as 'enemies' in the post. I am sure that more people than Premier Howard of Oz think that Zarkawi the Jordanian mass murderer is anything but an insurgent. Or that blowing up mosques or attacking journalists in hotels - to name just two recent incidents - has much to do with an insurgency. As for the Fallujah fighters, what do we really know about them? Well, I guess if you accord ANY legitimacy to the regime of Sunnis that oppressed Shias and Kurds, a regime that lost power and now wants it back so it can resume where it left off, then you might call them resistance fighters. To me they are resistant to change, reason and history.
Whoops, couldn't resist...

Anyway, in the main we agree on one thing. That WP was used as a weapon. But we obviously interpret the way the story came to light totally differently AND have come to a different conclusion as to the nature of the weapon.

Point by point:

1. OK, here we go. The story, as I still see it, is NOT that this misunderstood semi-weapon was deployed. It is that the way it was presented by the propagandists at RAI, and then many but not all others, took absolutely everything out of context. In so doing, and under the guise of looking for 'truth,' they simply advanced their own agenda and contributed to the hysterical anti-Americanism in the world. If you really feel that's a worthwhile cause, then stick to the facts. But that's a no win proposition in this case so the whole movie had to be doctored. I really urge people to read some of the links in the original post, they clearly show how dishonest the movie is. Listen to this piece on NPR and read this this Christian Science Monitor story. This is where I am coming from, what I object to so strongly: this extreme desire to make untenable relativistic comparisons and lying to embellish the hoax. The bodies in the documentary were not victims of WP, but RAI used emotional images to deceive and dishonored the dead in the process.

2. Of course I believe Venables. He makes total sense. Of course they wanted to kill people! I highlighted that part of his quote...check it out. But not with WP per se...why would they? And since it's not the evil weapon claimed it wouldn't matter if they did. Though that would be dumb. And like I wrote, I believe the Pentagon here because a) I have a different worldview and b) because they never denied this, it was the State Department that issued the denial.

3. The legality of the weapon is probably an open and shut case. And not because the US says so, but because the other signatories agreed to the terms of the CCW and that if you did not sign Protocol II, you can hardly be in breach of it. The reporting on this aspect and the fact that WP is incendiary and not chemical has been woeful and malicious. I would, however, maintain that this was not the reason the US opted out. The case could be made that the battle for Fallujah was subject to Protocol II's references to civilians. But I am no lawyer.

4. Yes, I attacked the Beeb for saying 'chemical' at first, and thus getting just about everything wrong...and hinted that they have had other issues of credibility. Whether or not you accept all of those, they are similar to the NYT issues with Judy Miller. In one case, anti-war bias and in the other pro-war bias. Both wrong, no? Sure the BBC was simply reporting another broadcaster's story, but they have some responsibility to assume before peddling propaganda. Where was the urgency? They are received all over the world, and need to be careful. In this case, they retracted lots of the original report - as my instincts correctly told me they would have to, and if I can spot an error BEFORE my espresso... - but all anyone remembers is the first report. First impressions count even if they are wrong. Sad. As for comparing what a government does to what media does...that's a non sequitur...and I do NOT agree with the Wizard's characterization of "Bush misleading." But that's another story.

5. I addressed this in the opening paragraphs.

6. War opponents were honorable, if they are principled and not opportunisic ones, as I intentionally wrote at the end of my very first post on the subject. No doubt the Wizard is a man of honor. As for lumping them with conspiricists (ie not conspirators but those who believe in conspiracy theories,) i meant the opportunists like Hillary Clinton, Schroder and co. Need to learn to be clearer.

7. No real comment...Comparing British colonialism to this seems odd. But me thinks the point is lost on me. Perhaps the Wizard is referring to the West shacking up with Saddam out of necessity in the 1980s and then abandonning the Iraqis after the Gulf War I. The former was Cold War, anti-Mullah, realpolitik, the latter a disgrace. But when Theocrats and Soviets wanted to expand, I was always on the side of the West. A no-brainer as they say... This does not excuse things, eg in the main ignoring the brutality of Saddam, but that was what it was about not Halliburton.

8. I was referring to Aznar's principled stance on Iraq until the Madrid bombings. Yes, he lost all credibility after that sham.

I close with this Monbiot column from the Guardian since it's the kind of stuff that people WANT to believe. But that doesn't make it so. i think i disagree with his entire piece. Well, except for his characterization of the damn RAI story that got this charade on the road.

Note that the language from the Army magazine refers to insurgents and to killing with HE, not WP. But defining 'chemical' in that way so clearly serves his purpose, to attach credibility to the headline. C'mon...nitro-glycerine is a chemical compound. Ask the ghost of Nobel, who not only invented it, but gave birth to the prize for Chemistry. EVERYONE knows that the Chemical Weapons Convention is not about this kind of stuff...that's why the CCW came about. what a dishonest fool. He even cites global security.org...listen to the NPR segment, where Pike from that very organization disproves his pathetic case. Just like when RAI quoted the soldiers out of context... Now realize that Monbiot is a turkey just like RAI. He's all excited about how 'new evidence' led to this or that...bet he is probably TOTALLY immune to any new evidence himself. As for his napalm claims, his credibility is roughly zero at that point in the column - the man is downright chomskyesque in his selective and twisted use of facts - so I'll assume he's either wrong or incidentally correct. His last sentence might as well have been written in early March 2003 since he had already made up his mind that the US-UK would be the same as Saddam, if they elected to remove him. Democracies finally getting rid of a thug, but somehow that makes them same as him. Truly wonderland stuff. With or without the invasion, there is NO similarity. But because one was against the invasion this relativism creeps in. You know, there are those who argued against the invasion for all kinds of legitimate reasons, and are now critical, and NEVER rely on this kind of jabberwocky.

Again, this is what riles me, that people read Monbiot in the morning and believe it because it conforms with their prejudice. They are NOT interested in the complexity or the truth. The US simply MUST be like that b/c they are BAD...and if a story like this one is contextualized, then the messenger will be shunned and their hatred can continue unabated. If I'm unlucky I get swept up in the tide of irrationality and become partisan myself. But I try to keep calm.

If the Wizard thinks that WP is not acceptable, fine. But the case needs to avoid the RAI/Monbiot route. It can be made and maybe I will agree. but I will NEVER agree with the way this story came about and the damage it does.

8:59 PM  

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